21st July 2016
If YOU had been responsible for discovering why otherwise healthy people, in the prime of their lives, were dropping dead, you might be a little bit pleased with yourself.
Not so for Francoise Barre-Sinoussi. “It was the hardest time of my life,” she tells news.com.au about the period in the early 80s when she, and her colleague Luc Montagnier, made a discovery that would go on to win them a Nobel prize. It took Ms Barre-Sinoussi just two weeks to uncover the cause of AIDS after being set the challenge in early 1983. Beavering away at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, to find what is now one of the world’s most well-known viruses — HIV. Now, three decades later, the woman some dubbed the “madonna of HIV” is preparing to hand the job of finding a cure to, among others, Melburnian Sharon Lewin.
The discovery of HIV changed medical science, but it had a tragic side effect — it gave false hope to desperately ill people looking to cling onto life. “People who were affected by the disease were coming directly to Paris asking the obvious question: ‘When are you going to have a treatment for us?’” Ms Barre-Sinoussi said. “They were in a very bad shape. Less than 30, they were thin, and their faces looked very old even though they were young. Some died a few days after. “It was a terrible period because we had no solution. As scientists, we knew it would take years, but as human beings we thought if we don’t do something rapidly they will die.” Ms Barre-Sinoussi was so affected by it all, that those closest to her had to intervene. “I was going to restaurants, telling my husband ‘I’m sure this guy over there has HIV’ and I remember him telling me, ‘please stop, you are becoming crazy’.” Ms Barre-Sinoussi is in Durban, South Africa, for the biannual global AIDS conference. The get-together of experts in the field, as well as celebrities including Charlize Theron and Prince Harry, has heard that while HIV is now a manageable condition with treatment, of the 37 million people globally living with the virus only 17 million of them are on the drugs that can prevent them from developing AIDS.
Meanwhile, rich Western nations have been criticised for failing to put their money where their mouths are by not contributing enough to the Global Fund which funds HIV programs. Some countries have actually kicked in less cash. A former head of the International AIDS Society (IAS), Ms Barre-Sinoussi has been spearheading efforts into finding a cure. The plans may be grand, but Ms Barre-Sinoussi hardly comes from a flashy background. “I come from quite a modest family, nobody in my family was a doctor or a scientist. I was the first one,” she said. While still at university, she took the unorthodox step of also applying to be a researcher. The renowned Pasteur Institute gave her a chance. She was so successful, she never returned to her studies — instead only taking the final exam. When describing her lack of attendance at university, she laughs. “I am a very bad example. But, like a miracle, all the exams went well after working at the lab because I finally understood why I was learning this stuff.”
AIDS was first discovered in 1981 and was originally thought to be a “gay cancer” but it soon became clear the disease did not discriminate. In 1983, Ms Barre-Sinoussi’s team worked out that HIV — or the human immunodeficiency virus — was invading the very cells that should have fought off the infection. With their immune systems shot, people would eventually get AIDS and fall sick from illnesses any healthy person could fight off. Brain infections, cancers and teeth and hair falling out were common stages on the road to death.
Modern treatments have been so effective in Australia there have even been recent suggestions that “the age of AIDS is over”. Nonetheless, 1000 people get HIV each year in Australia but this pales into insignificance compared to the 2500 women who get HIV every week in sub-Saharan Africa.
What is needed is a cure and Ms Barre-Sinoussi has been helped with that task by Professor Sharon Lewin, who leads a global HIV research hub at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute. With the French virologist stepping back from frontline research, she said she hopes Ms Lewin would be her “clone” continuing the fight against HIV. The Australian scoffs at the idea. “She’s quite an extraordinary woman. But I can’t be Francoise,” she told news.com.au in Durban. “She is like the mother figure of HIV, the madonna, in a religious sense, and we would not have had as much prominence around searching for a cure without Francoise. “No one was talking about a cure until Francoise came along. The shorter term goal was just to make sure people didn’t die.”
Ms Lewin first began her studies into HIV in the early 1990s when there were no treatments even in Australia. “I remember this young man who got sick very quickly, he hadn’t told his family and died alone.” While Ms Lewin and her US colleague Professor Steve Deeks will continue the work to find a cure, she said remission was a more likely outcome at first. “People talk about finding a cure for cancer but there are many cancers that can’t be cured and what doctors are looking for is remission which is analogous to HIV,” she said.
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